Mastering Interview for the Acustica Mastering Ebook
Updated: Apr 17, 2018
What is the true role of a mastering engineer?
For me, #mastering is not just about processing audio but also about quality control. It’s another perspective within a different environment, one assumed to be superior in acoustics and gain structuring, where a mix can be assessed and the proper steps can be taken to get the best out of it.
What are, in your opinion, the myths/clichés surrounding mastering ?
I think that the biggest misconception surrounding mastering is that it can turn a sub-par mix into gold. You know, mastering isn’t alchemy! It can certainly make things better, but there is in my opinion a certain overly fervent expectation of what mastering can do for a mix.
What genre(s) do you mainly focus on? How does that affect your mastering decisions?
I mostly focus on #metal, #rock and #pop genres. I have mixed #orchestral pieces as well and hope to continue to do so, as metal and orchestral music are my favorite styles of music. I can’t fully say how it affects my decisions, I can only say that for whatever is presented in front of me, I try and bring out the best out of it as much as possible, to the best of my ability. For one metal song, I may do totally different things versus another metal song. If it varies within the same genre, it certainly holds true that between genres it could vary even more.
What is your opinion about the Loudness War? Does “loudness” have an impact on actual sales or not?
I used to have a blog up, but when I changed hosts a couple of years ago the blog went offline. In this blog I addressed this aspect of #loudness in music. My idea spinned off of a polemic thread at #Gearslutz. The thread was called “Vote on the Solutions for Loudness” and although I applaud the effort, there is no practical means by which one can thwart the loudness war while making people understand why. I’ve said it time and time again but nobody is understanding the nature of why the contention for loudness exists. It's not that you can't do it on a practical level, it's the matter of the concept entering consciousness for music listeners.
Such a contention that compromises musical fidelity is by all means rooted in something else other than what is apparent. It’s not to be taken at face value. Let me put it this way: any convention or behavior found in cultures is based on a deep psychological force or impetus. Until that impetus is addressed itself, the convention will continue to exist so long as it feeds the underlying will to empowerment, no matter the stupidity involved. If doing one thing either empowers through belief of something assumed to be true or directly creates a brute force result that invokes primitive or visceral excitement, no rule or practical solution will stop it. In other words, devise ways to suppress the loudness wars and you are giving the masses more incentive to defy it. The only thing that can even touch the onset of a solution for loudness is a profound and psychological persuasion. The sense of empowerment used in aiding the detriment of implementing unyielding loudness, which in short is a type of influence really, can also be used to mold the logic (or whatever is left of it) into realizing or at least lauding the prospects of perhaps producing not such loud masters but to show more concern for musicality.
First and foremost to achieve this, the most influential and prominent individuals in both the creative avenues of our industry and the most technically proficient must set this bar. The individuals that are looked up to in which young minds would follow suite (because following those at the helm is a sense of empowerment) are the individuals that will create the model in how we must approach music production. A sense of “Man, that’s just dumb making it sound that loud and crushed” coming from the creative and technical leaders would create perhaps a scurvy of implicit shame for any person who would dare revert back to creating squashed, lifeless, harsh sounding music. Incidentally, this is the same recursion record labels/A&R/big name producers had created that started toppling a few pebbles turning it into a loudness avalanche. Why? Again, because following those at the helm gives a sense of empowerment. Rules, methods of enforcing loudness control, and the like will only create more defiance. These types of methods are associated with administration and bureaucracy: precisely the antipodal world to creativity and art. Not a good way of getting people on board.
I think at this point in time, things implemented for controlling loudness, such as what we find in #iTunes, it may buy some time. As I mentioned above however, I don’t think that will actually teach people why we shouldn’t aim for such loudness. To be frank, the whole debacle with #Metallica and their 2008 album “Death Magnetic,” now that was a surprisingly good wake-up call for people and consumers of music. The fact that the Guitar Hero stems, which were not as crushed and pummeled, were circulating around the web enabled for a direct comparison, in turn shaming the louder, crushed version which had lost its musicality in a sense and sounded harsher overall. I think that did the most good for people to understand why it is not such a great idea to crush music for the sake of loudness.
Let’s speak about compression: are there any tricks you want to share? What about EQ?
I can honestly say I have no tricks per say. The methods I use for the actual #compression and #EQ’ing of audio are things you can read or find online. My routing and signal manipulation may be somewhat unique, things I’ve worked on and built upon for years working at my craft but those things I mainly do if I mix music. Overall for mastering, I just listen. I know it’s cliche and a boring answer, but I honestly just use my ears and then tune things to how I want them to sound. In fact, that’s my trick: I practice sweeping EQ’s and setting compressors in extreme ways to understand what NOT to do in a real situation. I train just as an athlete would in the gym, except this is for my ear-brain.
Good monitors and a pretty neutral room are essential for making conscious decisions while mastering, but what about headphones?
Headphones I think are a good tool for “zooming in” on blemishes. For editing, they can be great to ensure that one hasn’t left in any bad fades, blips or glitches that may otherwise go unnoticed listening on monitors.
What are your favourite Nebula/Acqua Libraries/Plugins? What other plugins do you think are suitable for mastering?
I really like the AlexB consoles, I use CLC and VBC most. Tim Petherick (http://www.timpetherick.co.uk/) is also doing amazing work in #Nebula land. My favorite #Aquas are probably Titanium, Green EQ, Amber EQ, and the D361a. I do think all of these are great for mastering, but mostly the Titanium and the two EQ’s are great for broad strokes and sweetening in the mastering stage.
Do you use any analog hardware?
I used to. Everything from multi-track cassette tapes to some reel to reel tape, not much at all. But around 2009 or so I consciously decided to go all #in-the-box, as they say. I don’t see audio as “analog sound” vs. “digital sound.” I see it as “good sound” vs “bad sound”. There are certain effects you can induce in an audio signal and you can essentially reach that effect through either means, analog or digital. Getting there and knowing how to get there may vary between the two different means, but the result is the result. That’s all that matters. Nobody says “wow! That song sound so analog or digital.” They just hear and feel it sounding good or not.
How do you normally set up your mastering chain?
How I set it up is normally as a template. With my tools ready to go. But I don’t necessarily use everything there. They are in bypass until I feel I need to use them. As far as order of processing, I don’t have a given order except for a fundamental process: technical EQ, sweetening EQ, and peak/ISP limiting. In between those anything goes. What actually goes is what the song and situation call for. That’s what dictates it.
Is it possible to master at home? What tips what you give to someone who is about to start learning this discipline?
I think you can get some results “at home.” But what does it mean to say “at home.” It’s all about how you read into those words. If you don’t have the experience, knowledge, and time behind the craft, like anything else it wouldn’t necessarily be possible to do it or at least not on a consistent basis – which is the most vital thing. Also, to go ahead and simply say “I will master my own mix,” is sort of defeating the purpose of mastering, right? Like above, I mentioned quality control and having another perspective within a different environment, one assumed to be superior in acoustics and gain structuring. Well, of cour
se you can’t have those things if you decide to DIY the #mastering process.
For anybody who wants to get into the discipline of mastering, I suggest to put time into it. When I was learning, at first in the 90’s there was really no internet like we have now. Even later on at the start of the millennia, there wasn’t as much information and options online as there are now, so I went to school for it. Now, forget it. There are simply no excuses. Between the knowledge online, the option for schooling, and the numerous hands-on workshop opportunities by seasoned veterans out there, I’d say you would be hard-pressed not to be able to get the information you need. But any way, discipline yourself to absorb and learn all of this information then practice and practice and practice. Listen to your favorite commercial tracks and at first may be try to emulate what you hear. Make mistakes! Just keep doing it. That is truly the only way to get good at it.